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Congress has little time, faces big decisions

By Peter OsterlundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 1986



Washington

Congress gets back to business this week after a three-week break, and less than one month of legislating is scheduled before the lawmakers adjourn so most of them can campaign for reelection. (Trend-setting Senate campaign in Florida: Page 3). A smorgasbord of issues remains to be dealt with by Oct. 1. The groundwork has been laid for an impressive finish -- one that could ensure the 99th a place as one of the most memorable Congresses in the recent past.

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Congress has the opportunity to put into effect a federal spending plan that reverses a seven-year trend of steadily inflating budget deficits. So far, the lawmakers have skirted most of the major budget issues, and these loom above everything else on the legislative table.

Other pressing matters awaiting resolution:

The most sweeping overhaul of the United States tax code in more than a generation will probably be approved by both House and Senate and sent to President Reagan, who has indicated he will sign it.

An immigration bill, which sat hamstrung for months in a congressional committee until earlier this summer, is ready to come to the House floor.

The Senate has yet to begin fashioning a trade bill, despite the passage of stiff trade legislation in the House and increasing political alarm over swelling US trade deficits.

Congress and the White House are expected to settle on the details of a massive, federally sponsored ``war on drugs.''

This short September session could finish some long-delayed legislative jobs. For example, the latest version of the omnibus immigration bill will finally be taken up on the House floor after years of delay. The Senate passed its version of an immigration bill last year, in the first half of the 99th Congress.

Similarly, the 98th Congress was unable to come to terms with a renewal of the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup law. But the 99th might. Both houses passed different versions of the bill to renew the Superfund program. Then came an excruciating, six-month House-Senate conference in which a compromise was reached.

If lawmakers can settle on a way to pay for the $8.5 billion, five-year Superfund program as spelled out by the conference agreement, Congress is almost certain to vote for renewal.

In foreign policy, the 99th Congress prepares to leave a record of robust, if selective, independence from President Reagan.

Giving Mr. Reagan about what he wanted, Congress has put its reluctant imprimatur on the President's Central American policy. After months of partisan bickering, both House and Senate approved $100 million packages of military and nonmilitary aid to the contras fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. The packages differ slightly, however, and a conference committee will have to reach a compromise between the House and Senate versions of contra aid.

But on South Africa, lawmakers are preparing to give a final thumbs down on White House policy toward that nation's white-minority regime.

Earlier this year, the House passed by voice vote a stiff sanctions bill slapping a nearly total trade embargo on South Africa and ordering US companies to leave the country within six months unless specified steps were taken toward reform by the South African government.

Later, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a broad package of milder sanctions, including a prohibition on new investment in South Africa and a ban on imports of steel, uranium, coal, and agricultural products from that country.

A House-Senate conference committee may have to be appointed to seek a compromise between the two bills. But leaders in the Democratic-controlled House are apparently inclined to accept the Senate package, thus expediting congressional passage and placing additional pressure on President Reagan to sign the sanctions measure.

Though the President renewed a 1985 executive order imposing some economic sanctions on South Africa last week, most analysts do not believe this will dissuade lawmakers from pushing ahead with their sanctions package. If President Reagan vetoes Congress's sanctions package, an attempt to override the veto appears certain.

At the same time, congressional arms control advocates seem to be headed for a major victory over the White House.

Some observers say they believe that House and Senate conferees meeting to reach a compromise on the fiscal 1987 defense authorization bill will agree on a partial ban on underground testing of nuclear devices. The President opposes such a ban.

All of this may seem like background music as Congress buckles down to decide how much the federal government is going to spend on what in fiscal 1987.

The lawmakers had already settled on a $1 trillion budget for the new fiscal year that was supposed to meet the Gramm-Rudman deficit target of $144 billion. But later economic predictions showed the deficit drifting steadily upward. That meant the Gramm-Rudman target would be exceeded. According to the law, Congress either has to find its own way to shave the budget back down to size, or it has to vote on a resolution to cut hundreds of federal programs by equal amounts so that the Gramm-Rudman target is met.

The task before lawmakers is to fashion a spending plan that will bring the deficit within $10 billion of $144 billion. If they succeed, they will spare themselves the discomfort of having to vote on across-the-board cuts.

Congress will be tempted to look to the tax-reform bill for help. It promises an $11 billion windfall in additional revenues in fiscal 1987 that could be used for deficit reduction. The only problem is that the tax-reform bill, if enacted, would reduce federal revenues in the following years.

Some observers speculate that if Congress uses the revenues from the tax bill to reduce the fiscal 1987 deficit, it will be in a difficult position in following years.